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Man to Man: Cutting the Apron Strings

Edwardian Mother and Son

I’ve been inspired to write a bit on a subject I have been thinking about for sometime. John Sowers, in his excellent book (a must read for men…review coming soon) The Heroic Path: In Search of the Masculine Heart, talks about how wonderful mothers are, yet how easy it is, especially in fatherless families or those with emasculated dads, for men to come and stay under the warm cocoon of mom’s approval, safety, and attention. In contrast, I have been researching and writing a bit about one of my favorite presidential heroes, James A. Garfield, and, though he grew up in a fatherless home with a very strong and confident mother, had healthy boundaries and epitomized manliness.

There comes a time in every man’s life when he has to become his own man, accountable to God, himself, his family, and hopefully a group of trusted men he considers brothers. Sometimes mom likes to remain in the loop and other times she cannot bear — or so she might say — having her son depart from the path she has envisioned for him. The whole thing can feel a little Oedipus Rex, especially when girlfriends or wives start saying things like, “You love your mother more than me!” and so forth. As a man, it’s our job to cut the apron strings (or purse if you prefer) so that we can cast our strength, love, affection, and attention on the people and things we are called to: Our family, our job, our passions, the community, etc.

How to Tell if You’re a Momma’s Boy

bible“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” – Genesis 2:24, ESV

There’s nothing wrong with loving your mom and wanting to take care of her and make her proud…within reason. The boundaries between a mother and son are not clear cut. Some guys call their mom every weekend; some men rarely ever. Some guys head over to mom’s house every Sunday, and the wife and kids are great with that; others only on holidays or not even then. So how do you know if you are a momma’s boy? Here are a few things to consider.

Ask Your Wife or Girlfriend

That’s right! If there ever was a thing a woman was keyed in on and you should listen to her about, it is this. Women have an incredible sense for this. She may not know how to bring it to your attention, so you may have to ask. But, if she has said as much, you need to heed her perspective. Now, I recognize this may have extremes. Your significant other may ask you to have nothing to do with your mom because she is “poisoning you” or “always changes your mind”, and you feel that is too extreme. I’ll get to how to handle mom in just a bit.

Look at Past Decisions

Parents are great for helping us make decisions, but at some point you have to chart and follow your own path even if it is just for the sake of affirming that you are capable of making your own decisions, as terrible as they may be at first. Look back on decisions over your life and see who you consulted with and which direction you chose. Does it align with what your mother suggested? Did she steer you, sometimes very cleverly, away from decisions or towards others? Did you ask for your mom’s advice or did she just give it?

Don’t get me wrong, mom’s and dad’s can have some valuable wisdom to offer, but our job as a man is take what we have learned, either from them or others, and apply it according to our own sensibilities.

How Easy is it to Tell Mother No?

Oh this is a good one, and gets straight to the heart! Some of you felt a little tightening of the chest as you read that line, right? If ‘No‘ equals ‘Mom will be disappointed’ then you have an issue to resolve. In this sense, the word ‘No’ is a freeing word. It ought to mean that by your God-given prerogative you have a right to lean your own direction in life. If you feel the weight of mom’s co-dependency, controlling nature, loneliness, or vicariousness, in your decision, you are not free. A man can be bound by many things, responsibilities, his word and honor, God, his commitment to his wife and children, but he must not be bound by his mother’s (or father’s) desired path and outcome of his life.

How to Tell if Your Mom is Controlling

Sigmund and his mother Amalia Freud

Sigmund Freud and his mother which many say he had an unusual fascination and relationship with.

Another way to determine if you need to cut the apron strings is evaluating your mom. There are a few tactics that overbearing and controlling mothers use to sway their sons in the direction they want them to go, which is usually close to home and living the life she wish she had lived.

Emotional Manipulation

This is likely the number 1 way mom’s control their sons. In most cases it is a passive sullenness or guilt trip that lays on her son, shaming him for causing his mother to feel such a way. You can tell if this is happening because you’ll get a sense of guilt for going against your moms wishes, though she may never actually say, “This makes me sad.” or “That would hurt my feelings.

In some cases a mom will say, “I can’t believe you are going to go ahead with (fill in the blank) even though you know how I feel about it.” Whether it’s direct, subtle, or unconscious, it is still manipulation.

Your Mom is Disparaging of Your Wife or Girlfriend

In some cases a mom may be completely on point with how awful your girl is. However, if you know you have a keeper, and your mom is either talking negatively about her behind her back, to her face, or dropping subtle, negative hints, you have to put a stop to it. Part of letting you go is letting you find the girl your heart calls you to, and that girl might not be like dear old mom.

Your Mom Undermines Your Family Choices

You have probably heard the story (if you haven’t lived it yourself). Parents are sugar-free, gluten-free, media-free, granola crunchers — or choose any scenario you like — but when the kids go to grandma’s they pretty much run free. Worst of all, grandma is blatantly defiant, knowing how the parents feel about such things. Essentially this is what your mom is saying by her actions: “Honey, I know that stuff matters to you, or it matters to that wife of yours, but I really know best and will continue to be an authority for you, even over your own children!~ Love Mom

How to Cut the Apron Strings (Hint, bring your hedging shears and\or bolt cutter)

Fellas, when your wife sees you kowtowing to the wishes of your mom, she sees a weak man. No woman wants to be married to a weak man, except the kind that want to be in control of everything…kind of like your mom. Boom! Sorry, there goes the Oedipus Rex thing again. Gross, right!?

Be prepared, this may get messy.

Just Tell Her

This is the most obvious way to handle the situation. It is the advice you would give a friend were he in your shoes. However, this is the last thing most guys will do. Rather, they will avoid their mom, hoping that she will somehow change her nature or get the hint through limited contact. The problem is never resolved and the next family get together, holiday, outing with the grandkids, or family decision, she will butt in and pull you away from your family.

Adults talk things out. Well, that is a bit too gracious. Emotionally healthy adults talk things out. If your mom can’t handle that conversation, you are confirming your standing as an adult in the relationship. Hopefully she’ll come around. If you have the grandkids (or will), you have the power!

Take a Stand

If your mom or dad ever crosses the line and demean your wife or counter her authority in your presence, you have to take a stand! If it happens when you are not around, there is a tendency for a man to diminish his wife’s feelings, or excuse what was said by his parents. In such a case you still need to get your wife’s back and take a stand.

Taking a stand may go something like this: “Mom, you know I love you, but I am not for a moment going to stand for the way you just spoke to my wife.” or “Mom, if you want to be a part of this family (your family), then you are going to have to respect my wife. If that is going to be a problem, then this isn’t going to work.

Those are just ideas, you may be able to break it a bit more softly and still get the point across, but if you have a controlling mom you will likely have to be direct.

Stop Hanging On

The image of ‘cutting apron strings’ comes from a small boy, used to hanging around the house with his mother all day, holding on closely to her apron strings because it makes him feel secure. When he’s at the grocery store, he’s hanging on to her dress or purse. When a man says “Hey there tiger!” the boy hides behind his mom, still clinging to her dress. In a lot of cases, mom just continues in the same pattern waiting for her son to grow up and no longer be dependent on her. If you are that son, just let go. Man up, move on. And for goodness sake, don’t marry a woman expecting her to be a mother to you!

Final Thoughts

Cutting the ‘apron strings’ can be one of the hardest things you’ll ever have to do, and it may not go well. But, you’ll be better the man for it. A parent’s job is to raise you so you can go out into the world a productive citizen, able to be a man about his business. Your own family and ambitions need your focus and allegiance. Parting ways with mom can be tough, but the sooner it is done, the better.

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